By Anton Jones | 01/04/2011
UPPER COLUMBIA STEELHEAD – THIS ISN’T THE SKYKOMISH!
They may be called summer steelhead, but on Washington State’s Upper Columbia River, October through March is the prime time to catch these ocean going rainbow trout! The Department of Fish and Wildlife varies the starts and closures, but over the last 5 years the runs have been good and the dates consistent.
This is big water. The flow and water levels can be very inconsistent. It is dependent more on power generation rather than rainfall like smaller Western Washington streams and rivers.
THE ROD AND REEL YOU’LL NEED:
We almost always fish baited jig and bobber combinations on the Upper Columbia. When it comes to rods we look for a medium action rod with enough tip flexibility to allow us to make long casts with a bunch of weight hanging from it. The rod must also have enough length to quickly pick up slack and enough backbone to deliver solid hook sets. Longer is better until you compromise backbone and close range maneuvering of the fish to the net. We generally favor rods from 7 to 9 feet that are rated for lines from 6 pound up to 20 pound test.
A nice but expensive feature to look for in a rod is eye material that resists icing. Since we frequently fish in weather below freezing having rod eyes that resist icing is important.
Super sensitivity is not important in this kind of fishing because you are sight fishing on the bobber, not “feeling” the bite through the rod. Therefore, you can save money buying rods for this application.
To break it down simply, look for a rod that casts 2 to 4 ounces of weight, a rod that has backbone for solid hook sets and enough length to quickly remove slack line that will allow these hook sets.
We use medium sized spinning reels for this particular type of fishing. Our favorite reel is Shimano’s Sedona 2500. Retailing closer to $50 than $100, it’s an economical reel with a smooth drag, infinite anti-reverse with no back slap and enough capacity to hold at least 150 yds of 6 pound test monofilament.
Whether or not you go with the Shimano Sedona, a drag that engages smoothly is something you’ll want to have in your reel. These fish are powerful and unpredictable! If the drag takes more pressure to engage or is jerky you will lose more fish to pullouts and possibly to straightened hooks. To ensure solid hook sets and to not break the reel the infinite anti-reverse is a must. Having that quarter inch to half inch of “back-slap” will not only cause you to miss fish on the set, it will cause the reel to break down in fairly short order. If you are fishing from a boat and maneuver it to assist the angler on big fish, reel capacity is not a big deal. Rarely will a fish get more than 50 yards from the boat.
A 9′ Custom rod by HIS Rods mated with a Shimano Sedona 2500
LINE AND TACKLE:
Super braid is the ideal line for this type of fishing and Power Pro is the brand we prefer. The fifteen pound test we use has the same diameter as six pound test monofilament. This allows you to cast a long ways. Slack management and solid hook sets are very important. The line floats so you can readily see how much slack you have and because there is no stretch, you can easily get solid hook ups.
Your selection of bobbers and bobber stops are key considerations in this fishery. The bobbers must be big and stable enough to stand up in heavy water yet be rigged so that a light biting fish can pull it down with a minimum of resistance. Other bobber characteristics to keep in mind are visibility, “spookability” and durability. We have caught loads of fish with those big ‘ol foam bobbers, but we suspect that we have missed loads more because they are more difficult to pull down than more slender bobbers. They are durable as all get out and you need to add enough weight to counterbalance them that you can cast them a country mile. They may spook fish because of their grenade-like landing, particularly in shallow water lies.
The bigger Drennan bobbers may be a better bet. They are sensitive, very visible above the water, but invisible to the fish underneath. Their Achilles heel is their fragility and expense. If you are a well-heeled angler and are a very accurate caster, Drennan’s are the bobber for you. On the other hand, if you tend to hit rocks when you cast, you’ll end up with a lot of broken Drennan bobbers.
Another bobber option is to go with the Thill Big Fish Sliders. They are almost as sensitive as a similar sized Drennan, but, are much more durable and less expensive. They are also very visible above the surface yet blend in nicely below the waterline. If you are shopping for other bobbers, keep in mind they must have appropriate openings. The line holes at the top and bottom have to be hard enough to resist being cut by the braid as it slides through and it must be the right sized opening to allow the line to slide freely through yet stop a small bead that catches the bobber stop knot.
This brings up another point – bobber stop knots and beads. Friction and castability are key issues here. We prefer knots to neoprene stoppers for one reason – durability. The neoprene stoppers get cut very easily by the braid we use when compared to stop knots. The key characteristics of stopper knots are friction and castability. You need to be able to slide them, yet they should provide enough friction that they do not slide when the weight below jams the bobber into it. They also need to be small enough that when they are wound onto the reel for deeper water applications the come off the reel and through the rod eyes without resistance.
(Top) A Drennan Crystal Piker float (Bottom) A big ‘ol inexpensive foam float
A Thill 4″ Big Fish Slider Float
Traditional jigs in this part of the river are bucktailed offerings like a Mack’s Rock Dancer jig in red and black or purple and black and they do work. However, we have had great success using marabou jigs with standard “ball” shaped heads colored hot pink, red or orange in one-eighth or one-quarter ounce size. Having greens or chartreuses in your arsenal for deeper water applications could also prove to productive. Jig characteristics to consider other than shape, weight and color of the head are hook size, strength and style. Too heavy a hook deadens the action and too light a hook can bend or even break under the stress of a big fish. Since we fish barbless hooks here, that newer sickle shaped hook is worth consideration because we think the return bend of the point towards the shank helps keep fish on. Some of our favorite commercial lures include Worden Lures Maxi jigs and Mack’s Lure Glo-Getter jigs.
(Left) Mack’s Rock Dancer jig (Right) Mack’s Glow Getter
A nice array of Worden’s Maxi jigs
For us, baiting those jigs has become simplicity itself. In previous years we had used a commercially prepared “coon-tailed” shrimp that we referred to as Steelhead “candy”. However as we began to use Pautzke’s Fire Cure, we found the durability and economics of this product to be great advantages. Although this portion of the jig and bobber Steelie presentation has taken on a life of it’s own with “secret” and complicated recipes, we have sought simplicity, and benefited from finding it. Our simple recipe is to buy a $5 bag of Wal-Mart frozen pre-cooked 41-60 count shrimp. Cut those into chunks that are between one half and one inch long. Sprinkle Pautzke’s Red Fire Cure liberally over them. Let them set overnight in a cool environment so they